April 3, 2008

Syphilis Spreads in Tompkins County

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After months of investigation, Gannett Health Services and the Tompkins County Health Department have confirmed a sharp increase in the number of individuals in Tompkins County who are infected with syphilis, a highly contagious yet treatable sexually transmitted disease. If left untreated, however, syphilis can lead to serious health complications or death.
This year, nine people in Tompkins County have been diagnosed with the disease, a total that represents a diversion from a typical year in which one case of syphilis is recorded in the county. At least three of the infected individuals are affiliated with Cornell.
Of the nine people, several are men who have had multiple sexual partners, both male and female. Health department officials have traced a number of cases to anonymous sexual acts between individuals who met through the internet, according to according to Dr. Janet Corson-Rikert, executive director of Gannett Health Services.
The University was unable to confirm a demographic breakdown of those infected with the disease.
In response to the increased number of syphilis cases, and to prevent further transmission of the disease and begin treatment for those already infected, Gannett Health Services is offering free syphilis and HIV tests for members of the Cornell community — students, faculty and staff — from now until May 15.
Several of those diagnosed with syphilis have also tested positive for HIV infection. “Nationally, new HIV cases are rising among men who have sex with men. However, there is no connection between national data and what is going on in Tompkins County,” said AJ Rubineau, M.D, M.P.H of Gannett Health Services.
According to the Center for Disease Control, if a person is infected with syphilis, his or her risk of acquiring HIV is two to five times greater than someone who does not have syphilis.
“When people have syphilis, the risk of HIV is increased. You want to be healthy and minimize the risk of other diseases,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations for Gannett.
According to New York State Law, Cornell must report cases of syphilis and HIV to the New York State Department of Health. “Health department disease intervention specialists talk with people diagnosed with syphilis in order to ensure prompt intervention and treatment for those at risk and limit further transmission of disease,” stated Corson-Rikert.
This trend in Tompkins County is similar to one impacting other parts of New York State. Last August, the New York Times reported that since 2000, the number of syphillis cases in New York City has increased steadily each year. Just two years earlier, syphilis rates were so low, many thought the disease was obsolete.
“This reminds us that Ithaca is part of America. These trends affect the nation and we’re not sheltered from that,” Rubineau said.
For more information about syphilis, please visit the Center for Disease Control’s website. Visit Gannett for extended information about testing and treatment of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections.